Friday, 8 July 2011

Missionary man - David Macdonald Paton

In 1939 my father's second cousin David Macdonald Paton was ordained as an Anglican deacon by his old headmaster Geoffrey Fisher, prior to taking up work as a missionary in China. From 1939 to 1944 he lived in Beijing (Peking), working first as a YMCA secretary, and then with the Church Missionary Society.

Whilst living with a mandarin family there he learned to speak the local language, and also witnessed a ceremony to welcome in the New Year in honour of the spirits of the family's ancestors. The whole encounter was later recorded in David's publication "Christian Missions and the Judgment of God" (p.8):

On the wall facing me were three portraits: father, grandfather, and great grandfather. Beneath them was a table, with on it a small wooden casket containing the tablets of the ancestors, and in front of it a piece of red paper with the father's name in beautifully written characters. At each side was a red candle. At the front of the table was a bowl or two of offerings of food. In turn, first the males, and then the females, kowtowed three times each before the table...

The whole ceremony was rather impressive. I don't know precisely what religious belief the various members of the family now have about the spirits of ancestors. But at the least, even for the most secularised, it represented a profound respect for the continuous achievements of the Chinese tradition, expressed in and disciplined by its main social organisation, the family.

David believed passionately that for a missionary to be able to work effectively as an evangelist in China, he or she had to have a deep understanding of Chinese culture, and some sympathy, and throughout his time there he was very pro-Chinese. When the Japanese occupied Beijing, David helped to smuggle surgical instruments to a bunch of Chinese guerillas in Yanjing, believing that it was important to stand up for his principles. He was later ordained as a priest in 1941 in Hong Kong's St. John's Cathedral. Between August 1941 and July 1944 he worked amongst students at Chongqing (Chungking). Conditions were atrocious, and there was hostility from some elements of the Chinese society, who remembered Britain's role in the treatment of the country after the Opium Wars. He realised it was better not to try to dictate the agenda but to work under the leadership of a Chinese national called Jiang Wen Han in his missionary work.

After a brief return back to England, and his marriage to Alison Stewart, David returned to China in January 1947, arriving at Fuzhou (Foochow) in Fujian (Fukien) province, where he took up work at Fujian Union Theological College, at a time when the country was in the midst of a civil war. David's work as a missionary was threatened seriously with problems affecting hyperinflation and shortages, and the church's structure itself, unable to take to the strain of the situation. Things worsened when Fuzhou fell to communist control in 1949, forcing the Chinese church to cut its ties with foreign missions in order to show loyalty to the new regime. At the same time, a Chinese church faction called 'Little Flock' was also determined to destroy the foreign based missions. In January 1951, David, Alison, and by now their three sons, left China for the relative safety of Hong Kong, and returned back to England.

David later became one of Queen Elizabeth II's chaplains for eleven years, and eventually passed away on July 18th 1992. In March 2009, I had the great pleasure to talk on the phone with his son, who described how his father had always been quite socialist in his outlook, and yet disappointed at the same time never to have been made a bishop within the Church of England. He had in fact been offered the role of Bishop of Hong Kong, but turned it down believing that the job should by right be given to a Chinese candidate. Whilst disappointed never to have been made a bishop in Britain, he was delighted when appointed to the role of chaplain to the Queen, one of a handful of members of the clergy who were required to preach to the Royal Family throughout the years. For this role he was given a red ceremonial cassock to wear, of which he was very proud, and when he was cremated in 1992 following his death, he was dressed in this robe.

An obituary in the Guardian on July 24th 1992 sums up what a remarkable man he was, stating that "he was arguably the most far-sighted English Anglican this century" and that "if he had been given greater responsibility, the Church of England would be now less busy contemplating its own navel." It also asked "Did his outspoken understanding of contemporary issues and his sharp insight into people make him a threat to people responsible for easing round pegs into round holes?" If so, a far-sighted English Anglican he may have been, but he was fuelled with Scottish presbyterian blood! (His father, my grandfather's cousin William Paton, was a presbyterian minister!)

Very proud of the man! :)


  1. I would be proud of him too. Sounds like a wonderful legacy.

  2. Your post, in a way, is as good a way of honouring a dead relative as the ceremony he described. Thanks for posting that. Tumbled.